Samantha Stearns always considered herself an old soul, naturally gravitating towards learning about historical events. Now an 8th grade social studies teacher at Roosevelt School in River Forest’s District 90, that passion is being recognized as the recipient of the 2023 Cook County Co-Regional Teacher of the Year and a finalist for the Illinois Teacher of the Year Award.
Stearns, who has been with D90 for 11 years, said she was shocked when learned the news about the win and about being a finalist.
“It is a very humbling experience and teachers often don’t often get a whole lot of recognition so that in itself is amazing to me,” Stearns said. “It is a reflection of the community in River Forest and how they support the education of their students within the school.”
Always having a curiosity for trying to understand events, Stearns said she gravitated from an early age to trying to piece together information.
“One of my first memories is hearing about the Oklahoma City bombing and [wondering] why do things like this happen,” Stearns said. That act of domestic terrorism took place on April 19, 1995.
As Stearns continued to expand her knowledge pursuing a master’s degree, she was exposed to gaps in the history curriculum, changing the way she approached the subject with her students. Stearns said she became aware of the disservices she was doing to her students of color by not presenting the full story and not having them reflected in the history curriculum she was teaching.
“I have completely revamped the social studies curriculum that eighth graders receive,” Stearns said. “I have been leading the curriculum overview process that District 90 is going through to ensure that we have an inclusive, inquiry based social studies [program] and that we are preparing our students to go into the world and be civically engaged instead of disengaged citizens.”
This includes teaching about the reconstruction period that African Americans experienced as well as experiences from the LGBTQ plus community, who have long been part of history.
Exposing students to more historical events only heads to more intelligent students, said Stearns, adding that students will be able to engage and apply historical thinking skills to their own lives and the world around them. Stearns said she has seen her students ask questions, wonder why policies are passed, and want to be more involved in their communities.
“They are not just going to be content to sit and let things happen to them. They see themselves as agents of change and know they don’t have to wait to be 18 to be civically engaged,” Stearns said.
Stearns, who is part of the Illinois State Board of Education and University of Illinois’s I3, Inclusive, Inquiry-Based Social Studies for Illinois, initiative said she hopes to continue to be a part of the conversation surrounding the revamping of the social studies curriculum at Roosevelt School.
“Other states are looking to Illinois as a leader in inclusive and inquiry based social studies and it has been an amazing thing to be part of such a wide movement that is really transforming social studies education across the state and hopefully across the country,” Stearns said.
Stearns continues to follow that passion and pursue opportunities outside the classroom as well. She has been published in the “American Historical Association’s Perspectives on History,” along with the “National Council for Social Studies,” and has presented her research at the 2021 Indiana Association of Historians annual conference amongst other accomplishments.
Stearns is no stranger to recognition as the 2022 Illinois Gilder Lehrman History Teacher of the Year winner for Illinois, awarded to full-time American history teachers who demonstrate a commitment to teaching American history, both state and local, as well as evidence of creativity and imagination in the classroom, and using primary sources to engage students. Stearns was awarded $1,000 for her project assignment recognizing the 20th Anniversary of the September 11, 2011, terrorist attacks in 2021.
While Stearns is the recipient of the awards, for her the real winners are her students, who make her work shine through, saying that if it wasn’t for them no one would care who she was or about anything that she did. Crediting her students and community for her success, Stearns said she shared the award with them.
The Illinois Teacher of the Year winner, out of the 10 finalists, will be announced by the end of April.